Some tours to and in Turkey are virtually free. In fact, some tour companies may almost pay you to go on a tour!
How can this be?
In a word, shopping.
Many tours in Turkey include a “shopping component,” a stop at one or more shops selling carpets, ceramics, souvenirs, etc. Tour participants may buy things.
What’s wrong with that?
In principle, nothing. We all want souvenirs of our trips: photos, postcards, apparel, jewelry, furnishings, carpets, antiques. The shops to which your guide takes you may have good-quality merchandise and provide helpful, reliable service.
Sometimes, however, I find three problems:
1. Higher Prices. The prices at tour shops may be higher than in non-tour shops. They may even be substantially higher. Outrageous?
Not really: just business. If you are satisfied to have the item for a certain price, who’s to say you’re wrong? We all know of shops at home that charge more—perhaps far more—than other shops for the same goods. One person’s good value is another’s rip-off. Caveat emptor! (“Let the buyer beware.”) It’s been that way since at least Roman times.
2. “Shopping Exile.” The shops chosen by tours are often in isolated locations, well away from other shops, so it’s impossible to compare quality and prices, or to do something else if you’re not interested in shopping. Even if your tour is cheap, your vacation time isn’t. You could be seeing and doing other things if you weren’t in shopping exile.
(But then, your tour might cost more if there were no shopping stop, so you might look upon a shopping stop as a way for those who buy things to subsidize your tour!)
Some tours label the shopping stop a “cultural educational visit,” which it may be: you may learn interesting facts about Turkish crafts or carpets. But that’s not perhaps the main reason why your tour stops at a shop.
3. Commissions. The main reason tour shop prices are higher is that shops may pay your tour company commissions on all your purchases.
“Commission” is just another word for mark-up and/or finder’s fee, a normal business practice in almost every kind of business. Commissions have been around for thousands of years. Every time you buy an airline ticket, or book a hotel room, buy insurance, a guidebook or a mobile phone, or purchase any of a hundred other items or services at home, you pay commissions, service charges, or some other mark-up. (The bookstore‘s mark-up on a guidebook is about 40%, by the way). Commissions are an efficient way to bring buyer and seller together for the benefit of both.
Normal commissions range from 1% or 2% to 10%, 15%, 20% and even higher. They are hidden in the price, so you don’t realize you’re paying them. Most of the time you gain no benefit by going directly to the manufacturer or service provider, who will maintain the retail price so as not to discourage independent sales agents. In other words, whether you buy a guidebook from a bookstore or from the publisher, the price you pay will remain about the same.
So what’s wrong with commissions? Nothing, so long as they are commensurate with the service you receive.
Some tour companies offer shopping-free tours, but they lose business because they must charge more for the tour. Many travelers compare prices, think all tours are the same, opt for the lower price, and end up getting less time spent sightseeing.
And some travelers really love shopping and think that stopping at shops is just fine.
What You Should Do
Here are steps you should take to have the best possible tour:
1. Ask about shopping before booking your tour.If you don’t want to spend time in shops, tell the people selling you the tour. Write it down and have them sign it. If they tell you there’s no shopping, or “cultural experiences” in places where items are for sale, ask them to give it to you in writing. Chances are they’ll confess that there are stops in shops, but that’s why the tour is as cheap as it is.
If you really don’t want shopping stops, buy your tour directly from a company that is forthright about the presence or absence of shopping in their itineraries, such as my recommended tour companies; or employ a private guide to give you a private or semi-private tour where you control the itinerary.
If you know something about the market, you’ll be able to judge whether or not the prices in a tour shop are appropriate for the goods and level of service.
2. Bring a book. If you want to take advantage of a low tour price but don’t want to shop in a tour shop, enjoy the shop’s hospitality, the “cultural lessons,” the free tea or soft drinks, and when you’ve had enough, find a comfortable seat and read your book.